For better or worse, James Bond has tended to be a man of his times.
Sure, some aspects of the suave secret agent remain set in stone – his liking for no-strings-attached affairs and shaken-not-stirred martinis, for instance.
But as the decades have passed, 007 has adapted in various ways to the era.
And it’s this combination of traditional and progressive that has helped keep the character vital, relevant and compelling.
In 2006, Bond underwent one of his greatest and most positive changes to date, with Casino Royale – which reset the series by telling an ‘origin’ story of sorts and introducing a new 007 in the magnetic Daniel Craig – forcefully bringing the character and the saga into the new millennium.
This year marks James Bond’s 50th birthday on the big screen, and the brains trust behind the franchise have thrown him quite the celebration in Skyfall, a globe-trotting adventure that is beautifully crafted, frequently thrilling and full of what has distinguished 007 over the past five decades.
In true Bond style, Skyfall hits the ground running with a fast and furious action sequence, this one seeing 007 and fellow field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) frantically pursuing an enemy agent in possession of compromising information.
That information can’t fall into the wrong hands, and when it seems that it may, Bond’s superior M (Judi Dench) must make a life-or-death decision that sees 007 taken out of the chase in dramatic circumstances.
Don’t worry, it’s not curtains for everyone’s favourite spy. But he’s left wounded, disenchanted and drowning his sorrows after turning his back on intelligence agency MI6.
Until a bomb destroys their headquarters, that is. Then he’s pressed back into service, even if physically and psychologically he may not be up to the task. (One of the best brooders in the business, Craig is adept at displaying the damaged man behind the licence to kill.)
Returning to the field to uncover the villain behind not only the bombing but a relentless cyber-attack on MI6, its undercover agents and especially M herself, Bond’s hunt finally leads him to Silva (No Country for Old Men’s Javier Bardem), the twisted mastermind behind it all.
The moment he appears onscreen, Oscar winner Bardem instantly propels himself into the Bond Bad Guy Hall of Fame with his unsettling performance, which skilfully walks the tightrope between entertainingly flamboyant and genuinely threatening.
A fractured mirror-image of Bond, Silva has a long-standing grudge against M for a past wrongdoing. And even though he’s taken into custody, his campaign against her and everything she represents is far from over…
The character of M, for a long time simply a delivery service for Bond’s latest instructions, plays a more pivotal role than ever before in Skyfall, and it’s fortunate that Dench, able to convey so much with a glance or a single line of dialogue, is on board to bring dimension to the role.
Similarly, the chemistry between Dench and Craig – a beguiling mix of flinty, flirtatious and respectful – adds gravity to the characters and the dangerous situations they must face together.
A female M always seemed a move in the right direction for the 007 series. But while Skyfall has its modern touches, it is also keen to pay tribute to the series’ history.
Some of these work better than others, it must be said. The return of gadget guru Q, here reinvented as a whiz-kid hipster charmingly portrayed by Ben Whishaw, is very welcome.
But there are a few steps backwards or at least sideways, it seems. It would be unfair to reveal them here but they do seem unnecessarily retrograde.
Not franchise killers by any means (in fact, it’ll be fascinating to see how they play out in upcoming Bond films), but perhaps slightly disappointing.
All in all, though, Skyfall is a very good James Bond adventure, one that does a fine job of balancing glamour and grit while adding a dash of psychological and emotional depth.
‘James Bond Will Return’, the film announces at its conclusion – I for one look forward to seeing what happens next.